Putting Britain back together

Constitutional reform must be an evolutionary process, not a rush job imposed from above for party political reasons.

David Owen
26 September 2014

The shock of the Scottish referendum and the vow to give more powers to the Scottish parliament have reignited one of the issues that has dogged British politics throughout my political life.

I have always been an advocate of decentralization, influenced by G.D.H. Cole' s words " the price of democracy is a little untidiness". As far back as September 1967, John Mackintosh, David Marquand and I published a Socialist Commentary pamphlet called Change Gear. We advocated devaluation and devolution. It caused quite a stir at the time. Devaluation happened but not decentralization.

I learnt a massive amount about Scotland from John Mackintosh, the pioneering advocate of devolution, who died tragically young, and I have supported all the devolutionary steps that have eventually been taken. These should have been accompanied by fiscal devolution, not just because it is a natural evolution but because it breeds responsibility. Of course, this will move the UK towards federalism, but I do not believe in imposing symmetry. Constitutional asymmetry is geographically and culturally inevitable. 

To strike a personal note, as we all should on this issue, I have no English blood in me, being Welsh on both sides, with a little from County Kerry and the Austrian Tyrol. For me, the decision to subsidise the Welsh language TV station was as important and significant as disestablishment of the Welsh church was for my grandfather.

Now Labour has incurred a new political obligation with the ‘Vow’ of the three party leaders over Scotland, namely some measure of legislative devolution for England. In my judgement for the best interests of Britain, at least at this stage in the UK’s evolution, such devolution should be fully compatible with maintaining the Westminster Parliament. 

As always, constitutional change should be evolutionary and never more so than for that complex and flexible instrument of our democracy: the House of Commons. It must also, even in the shadow of the referendum in Scotland go with the grain of English nature. I detect no wish for a separate English Parliament, no wish for regional government. This is why the Mackay Commission, which reported to Parliament in March last year, is timely and opportune. Its five Commissioners moved with the delicacy of watch repairers and their recommendations are crafted with the skill of acute observers of Parliament.

In particular the flexibility they have carved out for claiming a piece of English legislation to be exceptional and not having to be part of normal procedure is both ingenious and a groundbreaking reform.  They propose that using a Grand Committee system,

 “decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or for England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England-and-Wales)”,

while ensuring,

“The right of the House of Commons as a whole to make the final decision should remain”.

It would make sure that there are not two different kinds of MPs and that if some English legislation has from time to time so great an implication for the UK as a whole that it does not fit with only English MP's amending a Bill at the Committee stage and Third Reading, then Parliament can so decide. Labour should negotiate Mackay's various options on an all-party basis. They will be able, I suspect, to get agreement on these House of Commons matters.

The NHS Reinstatement Bill 2015, that I and others are now starting to campaign for is a classic case of the sort of exception that could be invoked. Repeal of the 2012 Health and Social Care legislation will not only be in Labour's manifesto it is supported by the UK wide BMA and health trade unions. The wish for the original NHS to be available in all parts of the UK is by any standard a unifying theme and legitimate for a UK government to reinstate.

There is a success story in the gradual introduction of a powerful Mayor in London and some other cities which should be expanded into a strategic health and caring role. Fiscal devolution is finally coming and not before time - agreed in a few days for Scotland despite earlier differences, and rightly in the face of the threat to break up of the UK. It is however a vindication of the realities: Constitutional change in a democracy usually is the result of a political trade off. 

In the light of the ‘Vow’ what we need, and what should be agreed between the three parties before the General Election as a programme for the next parliament is the Mackay Commission package along with two other vital reforms. First, a 600 member House of Commons and second an elected Senate representing the four elements of the UK. For the House of Lords of which I am a member has become an absurdity in size, composition and in failing to check the Coalition; for example, acting without any mandate on Health and Social Care. The time has come for a four nation elected chamber with only the elected voting on legislation. If there are to be appointees they should only vote on non-legislative matters, while speaking on anything. Title: Senate.

There is enough scope here for a satisfactory trade off of party interests that will also assist the good governance of the United Kingdom.


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